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Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Saturday Recap

What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!

Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Saturday Preview Guide

Saturday was the first day of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival to sell out. When you take a close look at the daily lineups, it makes perfect sense as to why. While the entire thing is pretty stacked, Saturday in particular looks extra heavy on quality. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, you get to see all this great music in one day, meaning if you don’t have a ticket for the entire weekend it seems like the best deal for your time and money. On the other hand, you can’t see everything, leading to a nasty pile-up of conflicts that can be problematic. If you’re concerned about that, and you should be, allow me to offer some help and guidance to make the most of your Saturday at Pitchfork. Join me after the jump for the hour-by-hour breakdown of who’s playing when, complete with recommendations on what you can’t/shouldn’t miss.

If you missed my previous Pitchfork Music Festival 2015 posts, go here to hear/see/download songs from every artist on this year’s lineup. If you’ll be at Union Park on Friday, you may want to look over my preview guide for that day by going here.

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love [Sub Pop]

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Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.

The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.

Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”

Buy No Cities to Love from Sub Pop

Album Review: The Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years [Kill Rock Stars]

Let’s break down the basics before we begin. There was Sleater-Kinney, a three-piece punk rock girl group made up of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. They released a bunch of great albums, fiery and brash each one, but chose to take an “indefinite hiatus” in 2006. Going their separate ways, drummer Janet Weiss kept working hard, making albums with Quasi and Stephen Malkmus (with The Jicks). Guitarist and sometimes singer Carrie Brownstein expanded into other artful projects, blogging for NPR and doing a bit of acting work both as one half of the comedy duo ThunderAnt (with SNL’s Fred Armisen) and even starring in an upcoming indie film with The Shins’ James Mercer. All of this happened before we’d heard a word from Tucker, who had practically dropped off the face of the Earth. No worries though, she’s been working hard at that thing many of us have known as family. She’s got a couple kids and a husband and sometimes you just need to take a step back from the fame to spend time with those most important to you. The good news for fans of Corin Tucker is that she’s been working on some songs during her free time and was able to eventually piece together a small band to help her play them for a record titled “1,000 Years”. And just to keep everything completely up to date, Weiss and Brownstein have just recently announced they’ll be in a new band with Mary Timony that’s being called Wild Flag. Expect material and touring from them in 2011.

There’s this wail that Corin Tucker did on every Sleater-Kinney album that was often so intense you could stop the rest of the music and your attention would still be completely drawn to it. That’s one of the main things that set Sleater-Kinney apart from so many other punk bands as well as other girl bands. Combine that with some seriously hardcore guitar work by Carrie Brownstein and it’s little wonder why that band reached indie stardom. For those of you (like me) that have missed Tucker’s classic yell, there’s bad news afoot on “1,000 Years”. It’s a relatively quiet, introspective singer-songwriter sort of record. So much of it keeps a cool head about it that tends to bring to mind someone like Neko Case or PJ Harvey. Of course Neko Case and PJ Harvey have written some incredible solo albums, and they’re proof positive that just because your voice can reach the rafters doesn’t mean it needs to be used that way every time. Tucker’s relative calm through much of the album means there’s more time to focus on atmosphere and lyrical content, and there’s plenty of both to go around.

The first two tracks on “1,000 Years” understandably feel front-loaded to ease you into the record without taking many chances. It’s still a long way from the heavier punk that Sleater-Kinney so easily released into the world, but there’s some electric guitar that’s not half bad in these mid-tempo melodies. The song “Half A World Away” is about missing somebody you love, and Tucker’s vocals sound like she’s genuinely upset in a surprisingly emotional moment. A small bit of experimentation emerges on “Handed Love”, which starts out as a really sparse, bland and ineffective ballad with little to nothing going for it. There’s no easy verse-chorus-verse to guide you around, and just as it becomes a chore to sit through, it bursts open at the seams into a cathartic release that somehow feels worth it. The spitfire side of Tucker really starts to emerge on “Doubt”, and there are slices of her tour-de-force yelp, but the mediocre electric guitar work holds the song back from being something exceptional. Meanwhile the balladry of “Dragon” just does most everything wrong, thanks in large part to a string section that is probably one of the most ineffective and pathetic string sections you’ll ever hear. The song stands out as exceptionally poor as it’s sandwiched beween two harder rock numbers that do so much more with so much less. Near the end of the album, a couple of the songs almost start to blend into one another. “Thrift Store Coats” has some nice piano at the beginning, but the electric guitars eventually take over and ruin the mood. Thankfully that piano is given its full due on the closing track “Miles Away”, and it works quite well to become one of the album’s biggest highlights.

When she’s not driving forwards at full volume, Corin Tucker proves she’s still a very capable and strong vocalist. The passion she injects into her singing stands largely apart from everything else that’s going on throughout “1,000 Years”. There’s a number of pretty good songs on the record, but nothing quite so gripping that it’s essential listening. Arguably, the greatest problems here result from the “Band” part of The Corin Tucker Band. Whoever these people are playing on this album with her, they’re talented enough to play in a band, just a pretty crappy one that doesn’t make waves beyond a local music scene. They should be called a backing bland rather than a backing band. Perhaps, one might argue, they’re just following orders and are ensuring to give Tucker the spotlight she so richly deserves. Whatever the reasons might be, a few of the songs on “1,000 Years” had the potential to be mindblowing but just never made it that far. Or perhaps the issue isn’t so much who’s there as it is who’s not. With Carrie Brownstein digging in deep on her guitar and Janet Weiss slamming the drums like there’s no tomorrow, combined with Tucker’s vocals, Sleater-Kinney was a trinity of amazing musicians. We can’t even judge how Brownstein would do solo because she has yet to release any post-S-K music (at the moment). Weiss’s utility player role will serve her well in any band she joins, as we’ve already seen. The Wild Flag album’s going to be a small test, but that in itself is a supergroup so great things are expected from them anyways. Corin Tucker is effectively going it alone with some faceless musicians helping her out. Expectations were high anyways, and so “1,000 Years” feels like a mild disappointment. Nobody’s going to fault her for trying though, and if she keeps making music under the Corin Tucker Band name it could very well get a whole lot better. Time will tell. In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed for that Sleater-Kinney reunion.

The Corin Tucker Band – Doubt

Buy “1,000 Years” from Amazon

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